Merengue History

Merengue is a dominican folkloric dance widely spread and considered by many as the dominican national dance.


The origin of merengue is still discussed. Among the different opinions we find:
  • It was Alfonseca who invented merenge (according to Flérida de Nolasco)
  • Its origin and apparition is lost in the foggyness of the past. (Julio Alberto Hernández).
  • It was born as a dominican melody after the dominican victory at the Talanquera battle. (Rafael Vidal).
  • It seems that merengue comes from a cuban music called UPA, which had a part called merengue. UPA arrived to Santo Domingo in the middle of 19th century from Puerto Rico. (Fradique Lizardo).

Apparently Lizardo comes closer to the truth. In 1844 merengue was still not popular, but in 1850 was in vogue, displacing the Tumba. From that moment on it had many detractors.

In the early 1850s a campaign was started by local Santo Domingo newspapers defending the Tumba and attacking merengue. This campaign was a signal of the popularity merengue was taking away from Tumba.

Mr. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi says: "Merengue origins still are foggy. It does'nt seem it can be said it originated in Haiti. Had it had that dark procedence it had'nt been in such vogue as it was in 1855, when there were such bloody battles against Haiti; Nor had it been overlooked as a reason for those who rejected the rythm. Ulises Francisco Espaillat did'nt mention it in his papers against merengue in 1875 either".

There is very little proven facts about merengue origins. In the mid-1800s, from 1838 to 1849, a dance called URPA or "UPA Habanera" (UPA from Havanna) made its way around the Caribbeann being welcomed in Puerto Rico. This dance had a movement called merengue which apparently is the way selected to call the dance as it arrived at dominican soil where it remained unknown for a few years. Later on, it was well accepted and even colonel Alfonseca wrote pieces of the new music with very popular titles like "ĦAy, Coco!", "El sancocho", "El que no tiene dos pesos no baila", and "Huye Marcos Rojas que te coje la pelota".

The musical structure of what can be considered the most representative form of merengue consisted of paseo (walk), body and "jaleo". The addition of paseo to merengue in those times is wrongly attributed to Emilio Arté. All music is written at a 2 x 4 rythm and there is disagreement in the amount of beats each part should contain, because sometimes they were extended "ad infinitum".

The literary forms that conform the merengue are the most common within popular music: copla, seguidilla and décima, with the occasional appereance of some pareados.

Since its beginings merengue was interpreted with the instruments common people owned and where easy to obtain, dominican bandurrias, Tres and Cuatro. At the end of the 19th century the german accordion displaced the bandurria in the Cibao region. Due to its melodic limitations it limited the music interpreted with it. Merengue had been somehow altered.

With this variant merengue made its way into dominican society, being accepted in certain social sectors and displacing other dances that required a great mental and physical effort to be executed, i.e. Tumba. The Tumba has eleven different positions. It's obvious why the simple choreography of merengue became so popular so quickly.


Merengue choreography is as follows: Men and woman hold each other in a vals-like position and step to their side in what is know as "paso de la empalizada" or "stick-fence step". They can then turn clockwise or counterclockwise. This is called Ballroom Merengue (merengue de salón), in which couples never separated. There is also what is called Figure Merengue (Merengue de Figura) in which dancers also make turns individualy, but never letting go the hand of the partner.

Nowadays, genuine merengue only survives in the rural areas. Traditional form of merengue has changed. The walk disappeared. The body has been extended and instead of 8 to 12 beats sometimes 32 or 48 are used. The jaleo has suffered the insertion of exotic rythms that have alienated it.

Initial rejection and later acceptance.

Even though it was very popular among the masses, high class people did not accept merengue for a long time, because it was related to african music. Another reason was the strong content lyrics, generating rejection and attacks against merengue. For example:

All cueros* are from Santiago
and they have a good life in Santiago
and because of that damn woman
I am from Santiago too

*Cuero: low dignity woman. Prostitute.

Other african-origin dominican dances were not attacked because of their religius dance character. This was contradictory with the religious concept of the high class group. These dances' ritual intent made their practice restricted to only a few places in the island and/or days of the year, with limited reach within the population. Merengue, on the contrary, because of its joyful spirit was more easily introduced in the popular parties and that's why even though the initial rejection was strong, it was defeated by its rythm's flavor.

In 1875 Ulises Francisco Espaillat started a campaign against merengue that was totally useless. The dance had been completely accepted in the Cibao region where its popularity became so strong that today this region is called "The craddle of merengue".

At the begining of the 20th century, some educated musicians made a big campaign to introduce this dance in the ballrooms. Popular musicians joined this campaign, but always found resistance because of the vulgar lyrics. Juan F. García, Juan Espínola and Julio Alberto Hernandez were pionners in this campaign. Their success was not immediate because high society refused to accept merengue even though this musicians had stablished its musical form.

The situation changed starting in 1930, when Rafael L. Trujillo used several "Perico Ripiao" bands for his presidential campaign and made the rythm be heard in places it had'nt been. The recently installed radio stations helped in that effect.

Still, high society had'nt accepted merengue, until an aristocratic family of Santiago asked Luis Alberti to write a merengue song with "decent lyrics" in occasion of their daughter's fifteenth birthday celebration. Alberti wrote "Compadre Pedro Juan". The song was not only accepted, but became a hit, being considered today as some sort or anthem of the merengue. Merengue started to disseminate rapidly, with the help of the radio.

As all other cultural manifestations, the dissemination of merengue originated variants of the rythm.

Popular musicians tried to imitate and follow the model created by educated musicians, while the country man continued playing merengue the same way. This produced two types of merengue very differenciated. Folkloric Merengue, that can still be found in the country, and Ballroom Merengue, which is the most commonly known and a lot of people think is the folkloric.


Some of the merengue variants are simply other traditional rythms being called merengue. This phenomenom has had little study.

"Pambiche", according to popular legends, is the name of the merengue jaleo without the other parts and slowed down to accomodate the "Yankee" marines occupating the Dominican Republic, because they had a hard time dancing the fast-paced merengue.

Taken from "merengue", Enciclopedia Dominicana, Primera Edición.
Loosely translated and edited by Tambora y Guira.

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